When I was a nipper I discovered I was privy to several personas. I’m not sure when this revelation first came to me, but I think it must have been around the time I found that if I stood on tippaws and stretched right up, I could reach the handle to Mama and Papa’s bedchamber. Just inside the door was a great big looking-glass that rested on the floor, and it was in front of this that I discovered my other selves.

At first I think it was facial expressions I experimented with, then gestures, then voices, all randomly, trying out my muscles. Gradually they became individualised: moles with secrets, moles with limps, moles who were flamboyant, or brave, or big, or tiny, or foreign, old or young or important or pragmatic or dreamy.Sometimes they were not even moles. I would practice the way they stood, held their heads, snorted, squealed, laughed. I would have arguments between these characters, rapidly changing from the one to the other, shrill arguments, reasoned arguments. By this time some of them had names, most were invented but some were inspired by people I had met: Herr Blini bit his nails like the refugee who played chess with Papa, Frau Schmutz had a limp and whistled out of tune like the school cleaner, Mademoiselle Chic smoked cigarillos like the supremely elegant mole who sometimes teetered into the Apothecary; Hans Peter smoothed the pelt of his head like the Lothario who rode his bike without using his paws.

And then there was Maud. I don’t know where she came from. Nor did she. Maud was a foundling. Pinned to her plain shift was a scrap of material, emerald and vermillion, raised velvet. It was all that she had of her Mama’s, nothing else, not even her name. She came to me fully formed, a tiny mole who stood very upright, arms crossed in front of her, ready to take on the world.

By now I no longer needed a looking-glass; these personas were part of me. Or at least they usually were. Somehow the me mole was always there, and although the others were all me as well, I came to realise they came from elsewhere, too. And that sometimes they didn’t. The times they didn’t were when I most needed them.

Like the day I lost my school bag and in it my homework and was too frightened to go back to school. On days like these I was numb; I couldn’t reach my feelers out – not even to Maud.

On the day of the lost homework debacle, when a return to either school or home felt fraught with likely recriminations, I headed for the nether regions of a bookshop in town where a kindred soul in the rather formidable guise of an autocratic dame, guarded the section that held reference works, English language books and esoterica.

Madame von Heldenberg was at her secretaire; beside her a tall glass of steaming dark coffee delivered by an Italian mole who ran the cinema next door. I was too young for coffee but when she saw my distress she sat me down and gave me a golfball sized, black and gold striped humbug from a jar that was refilled every time her son-in-law returned from a trip to England. And once I had my mouth full and couldn’t possibly answer her, she asked me what was the matter.

I had quite calmed down by the time the humbug had reduced enough for me to articulate my words, but what came out was still a jumbled muddle of losing my homework and my personas all at once.

‘Lost’, said Madame von Heldenberg as if that summed up the whole catastrophe. It did. ‘You know, words can take on a personal meaning that has nothing to do with etymology.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she steered me over to the dictionary section. While she went upstairs with some orders, I was to find ‘lost’ in different languages. She gave me
a pencil and an old envelope to write down what I found.

I was soon in a realm quite unknown to me. Lost in English just meant lost to me, but in Latin amissum seemed to some up how I felt about the loss, as did verloren in German. The Icelandic missti did this, too, but also evoked the atmosphere into which my personas and my homework had disappeared. The Hungarian elvesztett and Slovenian izgubli seemed to identify with whom they had gone and the Maltese mitlufa suggested the possibility that they had gone of their own free wills which was not encouraging. Why would they want to leave me? It was the Sesotho laleheloa ke that restored my confidence. It sounded like a rallying cry, a word that would pierce the mists and call those miscreants back.

When I caught the tram home that afternoon, I was fortified by the two humbugs adhering to my pocket lining and I felt better able to face the music. As I squared my shoulders for the upcoming ordeal my antennae began to unfurl. I thought I heard a familiar squeak.

Maud. Good old Maud.

Before I had time to open my arms to her the conductor came to punch my ticket. He narrowed his eyes at me. ‘Aren’t you the young scallywag that left its schoolbag on the tram this morning?’ He shook his head at me and waddled his way back to the driver’s cab.

It was all there. My homework, my atlas, my pencil case and my Uufgabeheftli – the exercise book that I wrote all my deadlines in. It was this that I picked up. I opened its back page, turned it upside down and made a list:

Laleheloa Ke

I learnt the words off by heart, chanted them. Gradually my antennae unfurled fully, my personas returned and my grey world became colourful again.

To this day, when I lose my characters, I repeat the words, annunciating slowly as if I were listing railway stations or reading the shipping news, a steady hypnotic beat. They announce that my antennae are out, that I am ready to receive. The last word, though, is different. Laleheloa Ke is a call that has to be sung from the top of my burrow mound.


There will be no murmurs next week. Mole is on sabbatical

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When I mosey down to my letterbox this morning I am almost blown off my hindlegs. The weather is wild today – snow on the mountain: a hiccup in the progress of spring, a treat for those of us whose heart is in winter but whose seasons are heading towards summer. I am taken back to the weeks of blizzard that swept through Europe some seven years ago, I was staying at the parental burrow, and while much of Switzerland hunkered indoors and dreamt of Sicily I, hardly believing my good fortune, rugged up and braved the elements.

It was dark when I left the burrow and I’d barely reached the garden path before my spectacles fogged up. Snowflakes settled on the lenses. Had I not trodden this route thousands of times before I might have regarded the adventure with more trepidation. But the lack of vision allowed me allowed me to imagine my surroundings the way they had been when I was a nipper more easily almost than how they were now. The flats on the corner dissolved returned to the paddock belonging to an elderly horse called Nobu; the derelict Hotel Krone returned to its prime and opened its skittle alley for wee moles on Sunday afternoon outings; the shopping and residential complex dissolved into the orchard that had surrounded the Waisenhaus whose orphans came to school wearing scratchy grey stockings.

Much of the time it was completely silent apart from the crunch of my paws underfoot, a moped or two, skidding and spluttering, the occasional rumble of the blue train.

Hearing the blue train, imagining it lit up with night workers returning home, reminded me of another cold winter’s night when Great Uncle Mole had taken me to a reunion of retired railway postal workers. It was held in an and old unheated Nissan hut that had been a sorting office during the war, and might have been a miserable affair had they not supplied us with hot toddies (even me, a mere nipper) and, on a rigged up screen, projected that wonderful 1936 documentary Night Mail. There were cries of ‘Cor! Remember those hoists’, and ‘Look at the face on old Harrison, always was a sour bugger’, and ‘Poor old Cecil, bit the dust in the Blitz’.

Now, or rather some seven years ago, on my nocturnal walk through the blizzard, it was the W H Auden’s poetic script for that film that was accompanying me. Its rhythm matched the sound of the night mail train running over points and somehow it was now infusing my hindlegs:
‘In the farm she passes no one wakes / But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.’ Or the hypnotic recounting of the kinds of letters being sorted on the train:

‘Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations.’


‘The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,…’

I was still walking this rhythm when I reached what had once been acres of allotments that allowed the residents of the neighbouring *Arbeiter Quartier to grow their own vegetables. It would have been poorly lit then, but now the streetlights were closer together, not floodlighting the building which emerges from the earth that had once nurtured cabbages and potatoes, but emphasising its importance. Adorned with the flags of many nations, this is UPU, the Universal Postal Union.

When I was a nipper, when the UPU was housed in a different quarter and the allotments remained undisturbed, I would have had no concept of the UPU had it not been for my very favourite monument in Bern. I would have taken you there, but the little park next to the Parliamentary Buildings is another twenty five minutes away, and my snout and paws are becoming numb. It is a splendid piece of work, bronze and granite, created by the Parisian René de Saint-Marceaux and brought to Bern in sixty railway carriages in 1909. Imagine a globe, the earth, the world, buttressed by a swirl of clouds and, at a jaunty angle, encircled by allegorical figures representing each continent. Each is handing another a letter. Before the UPU was founded this day 142 years ago, postage had to be negotiated separately for each of the countries a letter had to travel through to reach its destination.

Turning round now, heading towards the apple orchard belonging to the orphanage, I thought about the trunkloads of correspondence that filled every crevice of the parental burrow; and how this universal postal agreement of 1874, this extraordinary cooperation between nations, had held the far flung molekin together by conveying their letters.

My snout began to twitch. I breathed in fresh baked bread, then roasting coffee beans. Through the blur of my spectacles, I could make out lights. The Villettli loomed ahead. Two steps down, I reminded myself as I slithered one hind paw in front of the other. Not an eyelid was batted at the sight of this snowmole thawing into pools on the parquet floor. An espresso arrived, a basket of sliced Buurebrot. The blue train rumbled past, fuller this time; the inhabitants were beginning to wake up.

Night Mail

Universal Postal Union monument

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On my desk I have a lethal-looking spike set in a cast iron base. My first encounter with it was over half a century ago. We had been called to Worthing by Great Uncle Mole’s Aunt Hortense, summoned would be a better word; a family conference of some kind. It was my one and only sighting of Aunt Hortense although she never ceased to be a talking point. I must have been very small because in spite of the two telephone directories that had been put on my chair to raise me up, my eye level was only just above the massive desk at which the Grande Dame of Marine Parade sat.

At first I was entirely absorbed by the spectacle: the semi-circle of black-suited moles one side of the desk and this… this… Being on the other. Looking back, and having absorbed the scraps of information that float about in families, I feel that I am rather literally re-membering the event with this hindsight. I now know that Aunt Hortense enjoyed a brief but lucrative career on the stage, bought herself a large terraced house (much to the chagrin of her strait-laced molekin whose burrows were on the humble side), and with the backing of a Swiss impresario (named, I think, Seebold) became the sought after landlady for the stars of visiting repertory companies.

I think what so fascinated me as a nipper was the feeling that the formidable, bespectacled, austere mole who sat at the desk was not real. Now I realise that we were being subjected to a performance, and had we been there on another day, for another occasion, we might have met a Moulin Rouge chorus girl or Lady Macbeth.

Fascinated though I might have been, I soon tired of adult conversation, and turned my attention to the spike. It was right in front of my snout and had, in fact, partly obscured my sight of Aunt Hortense. I was not interested in the pieces of paper had been impaled on it, but looped around the base was a piece of string, and dangling from that (and over the edge of the desk) a small key and a label, softened with age.

I tried, by turning my head upside down, to see what it said on the label. The second word seemed to be ‘yakdar’. The first word was faint and in joined up writing. I took hold of the label to see if that made it clearer but I must have pulled too hard because the spike toppled off the desk, summersaulted and pierced me in the hindleg.

Later, much later, when my leg had been bandaged and we were back at Great Uncle Mole’s (and he had gone down to his study to go through some papers), I asked Uncle Ratty what a yakdar was. He was a well travelled sort of a cove, but even he seemed puzzled. He rolled the word around, trying it with different intonation. Eventually he said that all he could think of was that it was a fishing boat, but then after a little while he remembered a saying that was used by Persian sailors: ‘yak dar basta sad dar baz’ that meant something along the lines of ‘when one door closes a hundred others open’. It seemed a perfectly good answer to me and in some strange way I thought the key must relate to those doors.

After his Aunt Hortense died, the deadly spike sat on Great Uncle Mole’s desk. The bills that had been pierced on to it may have been different, but the tag and the key still remained looped at its base. I don’t remember anyone actually referring to the spike by name, at least not until I was on some errand with my Papa. I remember we were in an office two stories above a Gentlemen’s Outfitters just off one of the market squares in Bern. A sleek mole sat the other side of yet another expanse of desk. A spike sat in almost the same position as Aunt Hortense’s, and I felt my hindleg twitching with apprehension. My Papa and the sleek mole exchanged envelopes, and then the sleek mole reached into one of his drawers, pulled out a piece of paper, and with a flourish of occasion impaled it on the spike saying (in a voice as slippery as seaweed): ‘And onto the oubliette’.

An oubliette. What a splendid thing! A place to put something you want to forget, and not just somewhere to put it but a sort of ritual action; taking a present concern and spiking it into the past. And if not quite forgetting then at least letting it go; or letting it go to some degree.

But is it? Or is the very point of the oubliette to keep those things relegated to the past, firmly in view. What was it that the sleek mole pierced onto the oubliette? An I.O.U.? Was it placed there with such flourish to demonstrate to my Papa that there was a truce, but that it might not be permanent.

And what of the string and the key and the label that graced the spike on the desk of Aunt Hortense, and that of Great Uncle Mole, and now mine? They have not been there to forget but to remember.

It was several years after my first experience with Aunt Hortense’s oubliette. Uncle Ratty and I were in Great Uncle Mole’s study. We were searching for some tracing paper, I can’t remember what for, and I saw the label again.

‘Yak dar basta sad dar baz’, I said.

‘Eh!’ said Uncle Ratty.

‘The label’, I said. ‘Yakdar.’

He squinted at it. ‘Yakdan’.

It looked like an ‘r’ to me.

We found the tracing paper and I thought no more about the Yakdar/Yakdan; that is not until the other day when I was browsing reading an account of a journey over the Khyber Pass by an intrepid lady mole in 1891. She had, she wrote, two Yakdans for her luggage. They were strapped together so that they hung either side of her mule’s during the day’s trek. And at night, after pitching a tent, she hauled them off the mule’s back, and set them up a mole length apart. She attached two poles to them, between which was laced a stretch of canvas. My heart palpitated. This was the very kind of bed I slept on when I used to stay at Great Uncle Mole’s. But I had never thought to wonder about the trunks that propped it up, the Yakdans.

The book, a foxed and rather musty thing, was inscribed: ‘To Hortense, with whom this journey would have been shared had she been a little older.’

What did the key mean to Aunt Hortense, to Great Uncle Mole? What is the now entirely illegible name on the label?

Is there a Yakdan among the trunks in the cellar?

I sit at my table. The oubliette is perched precariously close to the edge. I twiddle it and watch the key swing.

My hind-leg twitches.

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The other day I was looking again at the lyrics of the Marseillaise the Chelsea Rat had printed for me after the great storm; well not the bloodthirsty lyrics so much as the font. It is lightly seriffed and in one or two cases, particularly at the beginning of the third and fourth verse, the tongue of the Q has such a long flourish it underscores the u next to it. I remembered then the old typesetter sitting in Great Uncle Mole’s chair, placing slugs into his composing stick as he gathered his fragmented self back into his skin, and how sometimes there would be a slug that held a letter that didn’t fit on its shank. It reminded me of the way one’s paw sometimes flings off a sheet on a hot night and sticks itself out over the side of the bed so that the air can circulate around it.

Recently my burrow underwent a transformation. No walls were ripped down, nor chambers added, no paint was applied, nor was much done in the way of tidying up. A room was prepared; but that in itself, although symptomatic, was not the transformation.

I have become used to the boundaries created by the walls of my burrow. They have become so immutable that I rarely have to negotiate them. I am free to potter about, write wherever the mood takes me, graze from time to time, puff myself up, shrink myself down, snooze or sing. I am surrounded by a kind of – I was going to say white-space, but that most emphatically is not the kind of space within the walls of my burrow. I am surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of a lifetime’s accumulation; not just my lifetime either because of course in my cellar I have the bits and pieces Great Uncle Mole hoarded or inherited or somehow gathered up from his forebears; and Uncle Ratty’s too, and those of my Mama and Papa.

Notwithstanding the almost archeological hoard my burrow contains, it is not often it is inhabited by anyone else. But last week a chum came to stay. It was the first time anyone had stayed in my burrow with me in six years.

This chum and I have lived in each other’s burrows before, and there are bits and pieces from my chum’s life here as well, a dresser, a chair, notes, plants in the garden, memories. At one level – a good solid earthy sort of level, we are as comfortable as old gumboots but we are also as different as can be. My chum is a sociable creature, always on the move, always on the search for new adventures. And I, as you know, am drawn towards silence, nestling and being unplugged.

It is not that I am not free to do potter, write, puff and whatnot, but for the first couple of days my chum was here I was hyperconscious of my actions, and hyperconscious of the time I spent not interacting.

What, you might ask, has this to do with slugs with letters that won’t fit on their shanks. Well, there is a name for the bit of letter that hung, paw-like over the edge. It is a kern. And the function of these slugs is to allow for letters to adjust themselves differently depending on what their neighbouring letters might require; the amount of space is subjective, more to do with perception than measurement. The first of the two small ffs in differently bows its head over the second. The second creates a canopy over the e that follows. In subjectively the j almost spoons the b to its left.

Some letters kern more than others. O for instance, unless italic, does not kern at all; its midriff buffers it from contact with any letters that do not have an overhang; it relies on others to make any adjustments.

It strikes me that in the household of Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty, that Great Uncle Mole was an o and Uncle Ratty more of an f or a Q. Without Uncle Ratty’s adept kerning they would never have remained such good chums.

I recognise within myself a certain amount of Great Uncle Molish oness, which makes it easier to lead a solitary life, but the opposite must be true for the kerning kind. I imagine a sense of unrightness if they do not have a neighbouring letter or being to kern with. And then there are those who have kerned all their lives with one particular being and, in typographic terms have become ligatures like the German ß (eszett) which is a double s, or æ (ash). How then, from such an entwined state, can the loss of one part be endured?

I suspect once an o always an o, but now that my chum has departed I am missing the patter of her paws.

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If I were a very tiny mole, a mole the size of a silverfish, I would make my burrow in Volume X. of Great Uncle Mole’s Oxford English Dictionary, not in any old place but quite specifically in the pages containing words beginning with ‘um’.

After I put murmurs to bed last week, it slowly dawned on me that in the writing of it I had fallen in love. I had fallen in love with my umbrella. I had fallen in love with the shadow it cast, the umbra, and the space it created, a space that was just mine, defined, even in motion. And I had fallen in love with ‘um’ words.

Um. Just those two letters provide a pause, suspend time while one’s mind takes its time to meander about for the right word, an apposite phrase, or for a thought to settle; it allows breathing space, time to step back and observe, to consider, or to delve deeper, so deep, sometimes, that the ‘um’ becomes an ‘om’, words disappear altogether and only breath remains.

Um was an unexpected comfort when I was a young mole, struggling with a strange new language. In German, ‘um’ is a kind of enabler, translating as something like ‘in order to’ or ‘so as to’, or it can mean ‘around’. It domesticated words whose meanings might otherwise have been frighteningly uncontained. As a prefix it allowed you to work with what you already had: umbauen – convert; umarbeiten – revise, rework; umbilden – re-form. Or it implied surroundings, metaphorical or real: Umgebung – neighbourhood, Umwelt – environment, Umstand – circumstance, Umgehen – circle around, keep company with, think about. I missed ‘um’ in English.

But now I find that it was there once. The same Old Norse roots gave us wonderful words. We had umbehold which is to observe and take in what is around you; it speaks to the material, local world, of what is within reach, within eye and ear shot but also, it feels to me, retains a sense of wonderment. Or how about the gentleness of umfold – to enclose, to shelter, to embrace; or to umbthink – to think about, consider, muse on, ponder; or umbedelve which is what a mole likes doing best. How could we have been so careless as to have lost these words four centuries or so ago?

And then, as my tiny mole-eyes slither down the entries of the OED, I come to all those shadow words, the ones that belong to the world beneath the umbrella’s canopy. Before the casting out of all those um and umb words, this sheltered space, like that provided by the foliage of a tree, would have been called an umbrage. It’s true that we haven’t actually lost that one, only its benign meaning. An umbrage came to represent a shadowy appearance, a ghostlike presence. It morphed into a suspicion, an inkling of something nasty in the metaphorical woodshed, and now, how can it be? – it represents a state of high dudgeon.

In the world umfolded within the umbrage of my umbrella, such later usages will have no place. It will be a space where umming is celebrated and within the pauses provided by the ums I shall occupy myself umbeholding the world as I wander through it and umbedelving in my molesoul to ponder its mysteries.

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Spring is here again, rain and shine in equal measure. It is also a foreboding of summer.

I try not to take umbrage at the merciless vortex towards the end of the year, the relentless daylight hours to come, the heat and the noise and hysteria that accompany the end of the college year, parties and Christmas. Oh be banished, bah humbug!

Instead I am breathing in the moment, enjoying the colourful exuberance of spring, its deep light and its vicissitudes. It is a time of never knowing what to wear, of whether to thrust off the winter doona or put on an extra vest, to light a fire or lie on the lawn. It is a time of rainbows and it is, without doubt, the umbrella season.

Last year I decided to take the plunge and buy an umbrella not, as you might think to protect me from the rain, but to shield my poor delicate snout from the sunrays, my little eyes from the brightness, and my pelt from the heat in the manner of those Italian horsemen envied by Thomas Coryat in 1611, who carried what ‘they commonly call in the Italian tongue umbrellaes, that is, things which minister shadowe to them for shelter against the scorching heate of the sunne.

What I didn’t want was a parasol, or what I think of as a parasol, a sort of tutu of a thing, delicate and frilly. Not that there were many options. I realised suddenly that the umbrella shops I’d known in the past had disappeared, as had those roving umbrella menders who would rap at Great Uncle Mole’s front door and collect all the storm-ravaged crow-like objects that had accumulated in the cloakroom over winter. The lack of options made the choice easier, and I ended up with one that swore to shield me from the ultraviolet rays that sneak through the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.

It is hardly surprising that although the very word umbrella has its roots in the Greek ómbros/ Latin umbra meaning shade, that its use in northern Europe was for protection from rain. In Paris they became so popular in the 18th century that uniform oiled green silk umbrellas with regulation numbers were rentable city-wide. The Académie Française, recorded a much more accurate descriptor: parapluie – a shield from rain. But across the channel, where they were for a while called Robinsons (after Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe construction from hides that protected him from both sun and rain), umbrella was the name that stuck, inaccuracy be damned.

The umbrella I bought to protect me from the sun was the most rainweathery umbrella you could imagine. It is large and black, with a wooden handle, no Gampish goose for me (although given the option I might have been tempted), just a plain curved handle. Furled, it is the most London of umbrellas, the kind carried as a badge of honour by countless civil servants, the kind John Steed would avenge himself with, when he wasn’t twirling it. But unfurled mine is lined with Magritte-like clouds in a blue sky.

I have enjoyed walking with my new umbrella, swinging it, leaning on it, hooking down branches to retrieve an apple. At times it has been a bit of an encumbrance and more than once I have left it hooked on the back of a chair, or on a bus, or on an open display of breath fresheners at a check out counter. I take comfort that I am not alone in negligent umbrella behaviour, witness the 12 000 umbrellas languishing in London Transport’s Lost & Found Office, and even more comfort from the fact that although my umbrella has been lost it has also been found.

It is the most beautiful umbrella I have ever owned and I rejoice when it rains, when I can put it up and listen to the heavy droplets bouncing off its taut cloth. I give my thanks to the founder of the Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes, Jonas Hathaway, who for thirty years braved public ridicule from rain-soaked bystanders, and paved the way for umbrella carriers through the centuries.

This umbrella I bought to protect me from the sun has only ever really been unfurled in the rain. This year, though, this year, I shall gird myself with Hathaway’s nonchalance and march out into the bright sunshine, umbrella stretched above me and casting shade, beautiful mole-heartening shade below.

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Ps & Qs

This murmur has been a long time coming. I have been in one of my writing muddles. It happens when I have written too much. I am fine when I edit as I go, but if I don’t I find it very hard to re-read. I look at the middle of the page and see the words spreading out north, south, east and west. When I am writing, I need a particular kind of focus, a sort of policing force, that blanks down the options and steers me along in a specific direction. I don’t have any great preference for one paw over another; put a pen in each and I will write from the middle and proceed to the edges, one paw’s writing mirroring the other’s. When I want to write something that makes sense to others I need a run up to it, a sort of nudge that starts me on the left and propels me to the right.

This ambimindedness can make things tricky, but sometimes it can be quite useful. When one paw is sore, for instance, I can hand the baton to the other. And there was something else that I learned the day after the Save Our Souls Storm.

You may have begun to wonder what became of the oilskin package that Uncle Ratty rescued (along with Chelsea Rat) and brought back to Great Uncle Mole’s burrow.

We were a bedraggled trio when we got back to the burrow. It was well after midnight but Uncle Ratty insisted on hot baths and cocoa before we retired. So it wasn’t until the next morning, when I woke up in the little room that was always mine, that I was truly assailed with the sense of being both embraced and unshackled. Something happened to my little moleheart every time I came to stay with Great Uncle Mole. It lurched a little when I remembered that he was not there, but that did not stop me from my rather exuberant celebration.

When Uncle Ratty tapped on the door frame I was no longer jumping on my bed, but I was standing in front of the tarnished bar mirror whistling the Marseillaise, paw on heart,

‘You’ll need to twiddle it down a bit, young Moley. Poor old Chatters is nervous as a kitten.’
At least he didn’t tell me to mind my Ps & Qs (whatever they were – Pleases and ThanQs, I supposed), which is what Great Uncle Mole would have done in his growly voice.


‘Seems he prefers it. School name. Doesn’t like being a headline.’

Chatters. I don’t think I ‘d ever met anyone less chatty than the The Chelsea Rat. Perhaps it was his chattering teeth.

If it hadn’t still been pelting with rain, I would have left the burrow and gone for an explore after breakfast, but it was and I found myself stuck in the parlour where Chatters was making a poor show of sitting in Great Uncle Mole’s chair. He hadn’t the right girth or solidity. Great Uncle Ratty had lit a fire and brought in a pot of tea and shortbread even though we’d barely finished our toast and marmalade in the kitchen. We sat silently around the hearth, Uncle Ratty in his chair, me between them on the Egyptian pouffe. The rain hammered on the roof and every time there was a clap of thunder, Chatters’ dead eyes jerked open and he drummed his claws on the arm of the chair in agitation. Uncle Ratty tried to take his mind of it by bringing out a game of Ludo. God knows why. Then he decided music might do the trick and put Ma Rainey on the gramophone to cheer him up. Chatters became even more agitated and so he tried Schubert instead.

I began to envision my whole holiday incarcerated in this gloomy silence.

‘I know’, said Uncle Ratty, and disappeared.

He came back in staggering with the oilskin parcel and with a thunk laid it down on the table next to Chatters.

‘The nipper would like to know what this is.’

He’ll say no, I thought, if he says anything at all. But Uncle Ratty was not asking permission.

‘So I brought it in here.’ He began unfolding the corners.

‘Treasure’, he said to me.

I waited to be dazzled by diamonds and gold florins but when Uncle Ratty removed the oilskin my first impression was of unbroken greyness. Looking more closely I could identify a large wooden tray with lots of subdivisions, each filled with letters on blocks. There were other bits and pieces. I was intrigued. But treasure seemed to be over-egging the pudding.

Chatters’ paw reached out tentatively. Uncle Ratty handed him what looked like a small, shallow, lidless box. ‘Composing stick’, he said as if he were handing an instrument to a surgeon, ‘Galley’ he said, passing over a wooden try about the size of a Famous Five book.
A curious transformation came over Chatters. I could almost see his blood circulating; he became all animation, deftly picking out types and slotting them away into composing stick.

‘If the type does not make it treasure in your eyes, young Moley, the tale of it might at least stir your romantic heart.’ He settled into a tale-telling position which meant filling and lighting his pipe with agonising slowness. I fidgeted on the pouffe.

‘Shall I tell it, Chatters?’ As if there had been any question. A nod from the typesetter.

‘We already know that 7th January 1928 marked the beginning of the Big Thaw’, he began. ‘That was only the beginning. Chatters and his family were evacuated to Wales . The poor blighters had precious little to begin with but now they were homeless as well. After a week or two, when the flood levels receded, Chatters and his Papa went back to London to examine the ruins. All that was left intact was the larder and the bolthole into the Apothecary Gardens, the rest was a mass of sludge, fallen-in passageways, and a whole lot of flotsam brought in by the flood.’ Somehow yesterday and 1928 merged themselves in my mind. I forgot that the family had been poor and imagined all those splendid rooms I’d walked through in Chatters’ burrow being sucked into the Thames, their contents sinking or floating out to sea.

‘They painstakingly went through the debris to see if anything could be rescued.’

‘Two chairs, a bedstead, a jam cauldron and some forks’. The voice was still high, but not as querulous as last night. There was no break in the typesetting.

‘And in what had once been the parental sleeping chamber…’, Uncle Ratty paused for effect. ‘A pile of what they thought must be coal, although it was rather angular. They put it aside because Chatters’ Papa knew he could sell it to a chap who owned a pub. But first they had to do what they could to make some liveable space. Some chums, and one or two relations pitched in’

‘Ratty was one of them’, Chatters squeaked from Great Uncle Mole’s chair.

‘It wasn’t until the family had squeezed back into the burrow and Chatters’ Mama was washing the mud off everything, that they discovered the coal was not coal at all but type. Being of a practical bent and thinking of the next meal, his Papa was all for melting it down. But to his spouse, poet and visionary, the heavy grey pile presented a glimmer hope. And when she examined the font of the typeface more carefully she felt her heart flutter in a way that, were she not the mother of seven nippers, she might have identified as falling in love.’

I glanced over at Chatters. His paws were constantly on the move between the tray and the stick. The sorts clicked together like little dominoes as they were put into place. I was mesmerised. Uncle Ratty’s tale still wafted in through my ears but I could not take my eyes off Chatters.

‘Chatters’ Papa was reluctant to leave the canals for this pie in the sky scheme, but when a chat with a lock-keeper led to a printing press that had belonged to a defunct missionary society and going dirt cheap, he put faith in Providence and his energy into learning the trade. It took her years, but under the firm paw of Chatter’s Mama the Apothecary Garden Press came into being. It was a bespoke press. The font on the sorts was not of a common or garden type and lent itself to special commissions. She exploited her inside knowledge of the Tate mercilessly for patrons, and inveigled her offspring into running errands.’

Each time Chatters completed three rows on his composing stick he slid the sorts onto the galley. Now it was full.

‘Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !’ I sang.

Uncle Ratty gave me a stern look, not because I had so rudely interrupted him but, I was sure, because he believed my singing would undo all his careful work and send Chatters into a helpless bundle of nerves again. I stopped. But it wasn’t rebelliousness that had provoked me into song, it was the words I was reading on Chatters’ galley.

‘I heard young Moley singing this morning. It emboldens the heart whatever one might think of the politics. But,’ the voice from Great Uncle Mole’s chair squeaked, ‘What is more to the point, this nipper has a printer’s eye.’

I don’t think I had noticed that I was reading upside down and back to front, but suddenly all my muddles, or mubbles, or wnpples, or wnqqles or selbbum, selddum, sleqqnw or sleppnw had been revealed as having a name, a name to be proud of: A Printer’s Eye.

And the ‘Ps & Qs’ that were to be minded and which, when spoken to me, always appeared to be capitalised, had nothing to do with Pleases and ThanQs but with the difficulties faced by printers when trying to differentiate between ‘p’s and ‘q’s and ‘b’s and ‘d’s.

Chatters’ La Marseillaise hangs on my burrow wall to this day.

And if you are curious to read about the possible source of the type that was washed into that Chelsea Embankment burrow in January 1928 you can find the story here.

Mole is having a sabbatical and will be unplugged this week. the next murmur will appear on Friday 9th September.


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The Flood

It has been a strange, warm, wet winter, the wettest winter on record here on this island. We have had floods, homes lost, over a hundred bridges washed away, and here, in the centre of the city where there was once a department store, then a fire, then a building site we now have a lake. Diggers lie semi-submerged, their cabins beneath its surface, their articulated arms and shovels above like so many Loch Ness Monsters. At home in my burrow I watch Niagara cascading from the leaf-clogged gutter, and am reminded of what Uncle Ratty and I later referred to as the Save Our Souls Storm.

It was a September and I don’t know why I wasn’t at school, but I can remember the train journey and the beating of my little heart as we began to enter molekin country. I always badgered my way into the same compartment. Any other creature already there, or joining us later, was an interloper as far as I was concerned. And so I took not the blindest piece of notice of the old biddy who took exception when I wrenched the window open and stuck my snout out. My Mama, had she been there, would have called it smut-gathering, but for me sniffing the air, feeling the rush of wind on my pelt, even the grit in my eyes, were part of an almost sacred ritual.

I didn’t wrench the window open at any old time but during the few moments between pulling out of the last tunnel and rounding the bend. My snout had to be out of that window so that, through my streaming eyes, I would be able to witness our entrance into the station and, most especially, to see the familiar figures of Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty. They were always there, side by side, on the same section of the platform between the potted geraniums and the Left Luggage. Always. I may have been the subject of my parent’s peripatetic life, but Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty were constants.

This time, though, I could only make out one figure. The leaner shape of Uncle Ratty. Great Uncle Mole wasn’t there. I felt a lurch in my moletum, a sudden presentiment that their burrow, which was such a sanctuary to me, might not always be there.

But as we drew in, and the train screeched to a halt positioning my carriage opposite the Left Luggage exactly as I had calculated, I could see that Uncle Ratty’s good cheer was undiminished.

Great Uncle Mole, he explained, had been called out of retirement for some emergency consultations in London, and would be away for the best part of the week. Now that my mind was eased and I could begin to breathe normally again, I began to relish the prospect of a week with Uncle Ratty. We could sing raucous sea shanties in the passageways, adventure out as the fancy took us and be beastly careless about the time we got home. There would be no-one to tut-tut Uncle Ratty when his stories veered wildly from the truth or to press books like Investigations into Rigid Frame Bridges, volume III, into my paws when what I was yearning for were the Famous Five. I loved Great Uncle Mole dearly, but he did rather have his own way of doing things.

But the experiment was never to take place. When we got back to the burrow there was a telegramme on the doormat. Please rescue stop larder episode all over again stop cannot bear it stop. Thirteen words precisely. Before I had even put down my case, we were heading off to to catch another train. I was fermenting with questions but Uncle Ratty was so taken up with consulting his Bradshaws, hustling us to the station, buying sandwiches, procuring tickets and locating seats, that I had to put up with them growling about in my stomach. But once we were on the 2.32 London bound train I knew I had him trapped for at least three quarters of an hour.

And so, while heavy drops began to hit the carriage window, he began telling me about his cousin, The Chelsea Rat, so named by the Evening Star in 1928, and stuck with it ever since, poor blighter. ‘Why was he in the paper?’ I piped in, unable to contain myself even though I knew Uncle Ratty would tell me in his own time. ‘And what about the larder?’

A crack of thunder all but drowned out my last question and the lights in the carriage flickered.

‘Poor old Chelsea’, said Uncle Ratty peering out, not that there was much to be seen; the window was awash. The carriage had suddenly turned chilly.

The Chelsea Rat lived on the Thames not very far from Albert Bridge, Uncle Ratty said as he fished a disreputable jumper out of his bag and tossed it over to me.

It had been a veritable water-rat metropolis before that wretched embankment was built.

I was glad Great Uncle Mole wasn’t there to hear the word ’embankment’. We would never have heard the end of it. As it was, I thought Uncle Ratty was straying from the story, or at least from the questions that still hung in the air.

There’d been protests, he went on, but to no avail. The dredgers came in, a fascination to the nippers but a bane to their parents; burrows cracked and caved in. The great exodus began. Then the foundations were sunk and stone walls laid, blocking all the burrow entrances. Only a few stalwart families stayed on. Chelsea Rat’s family was one of them, his grandfather to be precise.

‘His Grandfather‘, I squeaked. ‘I want to know about Chelsea Rat!’

His Grandfather, Uncle Ratty continued, was a river-rat. He made quite a bit out of removals during the exodus, but after that trade went into a terrible slump and the family became penniless.

‘Chelsea Rat’, I said, pouting and crossing my front paws. If we didn’t get on with it we’d arrive at Paddington and I’d be none the wiser.

The long and the short of it, Uncle Ratty conceded, is that Chelsea Rat’s Papa had to take work on the canals in the north, and his Mama, who was the a poet at heart, worked as a char at at the Tate Gallery just up river; – which meant that on the night of the Big Thaw, the 7th of January in that cruel winter of 1928, Chelsea Rat, who was the eldest, was at home in charge of his seven siblings. And it was that night that the embankment collapsed. Chelsea Rat felt the ground give way, the walls collapse, the ceilings fall in. He herded his siblings into the highest, most inland chamber in the burrow, the larder, and waited for his Mama to come home. Normally, she would have been home well before midnight, but that night she had been corralled into rescuing the Turner drawings in the Tate basement. Chelsea Rat thought she must have drowned. The eight little nippers were discovered by rescuers the following morning. They were squashed together like sardines, no room even to sit down. The burrow, apart from the larder, had all but disappeared.

My moletum lurched as it had that morning when Great Uncle Mole was not standing on the platform, a horrible presentiment of impermanency.

The storm was positively biblical by the time we reached London and I can’t tell you the state we were in after we had trekked south to the Thames and were approaching the Apothecaries’ Garden where the original bolt hole of Chelsea Rat’s burrow was to be found. No water entrance existed now. Chelsea Rat was spooked by the merest drop of rain. We found the poor ancient rat quaking in the larder where he had taken refuge all those decades before.

The burrow I had imagined after Uncle Ratty’s tale, was a larder plus a few decrepit chambers propped up with stays, wallpaper water-stained and peeling; but it was a grand and quite extensive place, and even had its own library. Uncle Ratty managed to coax Chelsea Rat into the kitchen, brew him some oxo with a heavy dose of something from a flask; and we went to investigate. I have to say I was not feeling that brave. Uncle Ratty told me how far inland we were, how unlikely another flood was. He spoke with little conviction. We spent several hours moving books and paintings and even some furniture to the highest chambers. I moaned that my paws were tired and he reminded me that Chelsea Rat’s Mama had moved paintings all night during the floods of 1928. Still he sent me to the kitchen to sit with Chelsea Rat.

It felt like hours before either of us said anything. We sat, two fearful creatures, staring at the table. Then Chelsea Rat whispered hoarsely, ‘The press. Tell him to get the press.’ Did he mean the Evening Star, was he somehow confusing this flood with the last? I went to get Uncle Ratty.

I found him staggering up the stairs with a large oilskin-wrapped bundle; he looked exhausted. I felt horribly guilty about having deserted him. I gave him Chelsea Rat’s message.

‘Got it’, he wheezed.

Back in the kitchen the flask had done its stuff, emboldened Chelsea Rat to speech ‘The press. It must be made safe.’ Uncle Ratty said we could take it to Mole’s; that Mole’s burrow was the equivalent of a Mount Ararat as far as being above the flood level went. That, in fact, Chelsea Rat should come with us, just in case.

It was late that night that we got home. I was never, ever so pleased to be there as I was then. But try as I might I could not help imagining water filling the tunnels. I yearned for the return of Great Uncle Mole who, for all his fussing about, made the burrow a home, one that you could believe in forever.

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It is very green on this island just now. Never, since recording began, has there been a soggier month than the one just past. The sun is now out; the earth is soft and delicious, and my paws have been itching to delve into it.

I have inherited the pleasure of winter gardening from Great Uncle Mole, although I suspect it was the afterwards he enjoyed most: coming indoors, warming himself by the open fire, and drinking steaming mulled apple juice from the Emmenthaler bowls some chum had made for him. And for me it is a somewhat dilettante affair, the odd onion weed before giving my paws a rest.

But today the odd onion weed yields more than its bulb. Entangled in its roots is a pin, rusty and misshapen, – still I can make out the shape of a star. It couldn’t be, could it?

When was it? The late 1950s? Early ’60s perhaps. We had a rare visitation from Great Uncle Mole. He was on his way to some conference to do with the St Gotthard tunnel and had arranged to spend a week with us in our burrow near Bern.

Great Uncle Mole away from his home burrow was a sorry sight. There was a restlessness about him as if he had somehow lost his slippers. And while my Mama and Papa had done all they could to make him comfortable, they had provided him with neither a fireside (our burrow was centrally heated) nor an engineering problem.

But while he was with us he received a letter that had been posted from Switzerland to England and then been forwarded back (or backwarded forward) by Uncle Ratty. The envelope was a mess but the postal authorities ever resourceful. It pleased Great Uncle Mole greatly and although my little mole ears were on stalks trying to eavesdrop on the adults after I had been put to bed; and although (because the words Young Moley drifted in and out of the conversation) I was driven to tiptoeing closer and closer to the parlour, try as I might I had to wait until the morning to have my curiosity quenched.

The chum who had written to Great Uncle Mole – well not written exactly but sent a diagram, was, Great Uncle Mole told us, someone he had known during the war. In what capacity he wouldn’t say; besides it was a question I’d be more interested in now than I was then. Apparently diagrams had always been their mode of communication; neither spoke the other’s language. The diagrams varied in complexity; they might be puzzlements over an Atlantic tunnel or the mechanics of a timer. This one was on the slighter side, though I didn’t realise it at the time, and certainly didn’t warrant Great Uncle Mole’s immediate presence, but it was just the excuse he needed – and a nice little problem to get his teeth into.

That very morning Great Uncle Mole and I were sitting side by side in a train carriage and nursing mugs of hot chocolate in our paws. We were bound for a village in the Emmenthal where his chum lived. It was my first professional engagement. I was to be his interpreter.

The chap we were about to visit was a Hafner, a stove-maker, Great Uncle Mole told me. Not any old stoves but Kachelofen, wonderful tiled affairs that had cunning ducts so, I gathered, that the smoke from its central woodfire was conveyed under inbuilt seats and through walls into other rooms and even sometimes a platform on which you can sleep. He went into far more detail than that. In fact he had not finished explaining when we reached our train stop.

There was no one to meet us at the station; no one knew we were coming. But the village was small and its inhabitants helpful, and soon we found ourselves approaching the large workshop that proclaimed itself to be Desmannli & Tochter AG, Hafnerei.

Just as we were about to knock Desmannli & Tochter came out of the door. Herr Desmannli was the biggest mole I’d ever seen – his Russian ancestry, Great Uncle Mole later said. He was also extremely grey but that may have been clay dust rather than age. Fräulein Desmannli was a stoutish mole of late middle age and wore overalls. There was a red star pinned to her breast pocket.

Herr Desmannli could barely contain his delight when he saw Great Uncle Mole. They pumped each others paws until they could hardly extricate them again. Fräulein Desmannli hurried them along to their Citrôen H lorry. She lodged Great Uncle Mole into the passenger seat. Herr Desmannli and I clambered into the back under the tarpaulin. Fräulein Desmannli drove, paw to the floor. The bends were dizzying, the bumps spine-defying and the racket left no room for conversation. I tried once or twice, but Herr Desmannli was too occupied lungeing after his tools as they ricocheted from one side to the other. I discovered later that he was almost stone deaf anyway.

Our destination turned out to be a sad old building on a hillside. The words Hôtel et Pension Beau-Séjour were peeling off the timberwork. It was more than neglected; it felt shunned.

Fräulein Desmannli strode forwards with the key and we traipsed into the building behind her. The ceilings dripped with loose lath and plaster. Floorboards creaked, cracked and disintegrated as we walked along them. It had a been a long time since anyone had spent a pleasant sojourn here. But Fräulein Desmannli knew her way and led us through to a maze of passages. Hours later, it seemed, we reached a pair of doors. She wrenched them open with gusto and there it was: a monstrous Kachelofen that dominated a third of the room and appeared to extend into the adjoining ones, too.

‘Aaah’, sighed Great Uncle Mole. He and Herr Desmannli disappeared into the next room to find the heart of the beast. Fräulein Desmannli was holding a clipboard and pencil in a purposeful way. A camera was slung over her shoulder. She was already examining the tilework.

‘They were going to smash this up’, she said. ‘Wanted to eradicate all trace of it. As if you could pretend it hadn’t happened.’ She beckoned me over to look at the tiles more closely. ‘The whole story’s here. The mole who painted it is still alive, just. I saw her a week or two ago. She was here, witnessed it all, and then spent fifteen years making the tiles.’

Every tile in the central section was painted with a scene. What do I remember now? Stylised maps, trains converging in Berne, crowds with banners entering a city building, four charabancs driving up a hill. They framed six tiles that held the words Zimmerwald Conference 1915. Below was a band of flags and, at the foot of the stove, scenes of devastation. The top was a mass of portraits, fifty perhaps. She pointed some out to me: Lenin, Trotsky, Alexandra Kollantai.

We were there all day: my elders photographed, calculated, drew. I kept out of their way unless called upon to hold the end of a tape measure or fetch and carry or translate. At lunch time we went to a pub but weren’t made very welcome.

I had barely heard of the Russian Revolution then, let alone an obscure socialist conference in the heart of Switzerland. And when we rattled up in the Citrôen lorry to rescue the Kachelofen it was the height of the Cold War; the locals didn’t want a bar of the infamous conference held in their midst, nor the building in which the revolutionaries had slept. In Soviet Russia Zimmerwald was often the only place in Switzerland to be marked on the map.

What did the Desmannlis do with the Kachelofen when they had dismantled it? After that day I never saw them again, and somehow I forgot to ever ask Great Uncle Mole.

And this rusty pin. Could it somehow be Comrade Desmannli’s? Did she give it to me? Could I have forgotton? Or does my own burrow hold some secret past that has eluded me?

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I had an early morning appointment, very early indeed; one that required me to wake up well before dawn. And because I had taken a long deep bath (part water, mostly epsom salts), I knew that once I was in bed my muscles would melt into the blankets, my internal clock would fall into a stupor and I would need a bugle to wake me on time.

The bugler did not appear, the alarm remained impervious, I snoozed on.

Later, after I had missed my appointment, I reviewed my timepieces (and my relationship with the bugler). You might ask how many timepieces a mole could possibly need, that five is excessive. But they are more than timepieces to me. When I brought them home to my burrow they ticked with the hearts of my late molekin. The ticking was not always regular. Grandmama’s fobwatch lost time, Grandpapa’s stopped when it pleased and without any regard for how far it had been wound. The carriage clock forgot what o’clock it was. And the grandfather clock so dominated my heart with its off-beat rhythm, I remembered Great Uncle Mole and stopped it.

When I was small and the grandfather clock resided in Great Uncle Mole’s burrow, I was allowed (as a very special treat) to climb onto the milk-stool, unlock the secret door in the casing and lift the lead-weight. And then I would wait. From about five minutes before the hour I’d writhe and wriggle on the stool; the anticipation was unbearable. Just before the the hour, the casing began to tremble as the weight worked the chains for striking. Without fail, my little moleheart leapt to my mouth in unison with the first stroke. The burrow walls began to vibrate, shuddering the chess-pieces off the board in the parlour. The port glasses, the Chinese ware on the plate rail and Great Uncle Mole’s clay pipe collection were, thanks to Uncle Ratty and his seafarer’s eye, firmly secured with a fine network of fishing-line and willow twigs.

Later, when Great Uncle Mole’s heart was becoming a little dodgy the clock was stilled except when it served as the first line of defence against unwanted Visitations. Alas, it had no effect against Cousin Ezekiel but it worked a treat on the personage of Luella Spitwort, a weasel who told misfortunes for a living, and once insinuated into a burrow, could not be removed – except by the earth-shaking growl of the Grandfather clock: the voice of Mephistopheles.

But as I reviewed my timepieces it was the one that wasn’t there that I thought about most. I’d taken the watch that had belonged to my dear Papa to a watchmaker who beavers away in a tiny shop in the city, and keeps me ticking. In its absence the watch took on a different kind of presence. I could remember it in my paws, its scratched glass and yellowed face and the tiny pieces of his pelt that had got caught in the spring metal band, somehow living on, all these years later.

Most of all, though, I remember it on his wrist. Time was an illusion, he was always telling me, but living in Switzerland we could not ignore clockwork. And now I am the age that he was then, I get a glimmer of how time is both elusive and unbounded. The watch that is not in front of me is at the same time here now and on my Papa’s wrist in Switzerland and on his wrist visiting my burrow in Tasmania in years past.

When he and my Mama were alive and they travelled across the world to spend time with me, they brought with them all the familiarities of my early years; they brought a sort of belongingness that I hadn’t realised I was missing. As surely as their shampoos and toothbrushes filled up the shelves in the bathroom, so their movements left trails of being throughout my burrow. Their words hovered and floated between the kitchen and bedroom and down the passageway. Their presence filled every nook and cranny.

When they departed the burrow was so empty not even the dust-motes moved. They were so very gone – and gone so very far away.

But now that they are no longer alive, are not somewhere else, these presences and the absences can coexist.

And so I have five timepieces.

None is reliable.

There’s still time to let know your favourite post and help me make a selection for the murmurs book. Please leave your choice in the comments section below.

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